Beilein’s Mountaineers, who peaked during his final three seasons at the school (with an Elite Eight, a Sweet 16 and an NIT championship), were viewed by many as a ragtag group of underdogs -- a patchwork roster that used smarts and timely shooting to overcome its relative lack of athleticism.
There is nothing at all “underdog” about Beilein’s sixth team at Michigan, which sits at 9-0 overall and No. 3 nationally in both major polls. But to hear Beilein tell it, there are more similarities between his Wolverines teams and some of his WVU squads than many realize.
“You look at a Zack Novak [a former Michigan guard] ... I’ve called him Johannes [Herber], compared him to Johannes like crazy -- or Alex Ruoff,” Beilein said, referring to two of his stars at West Virginia. “Our point guard play, you don’t know how many times I tell Trey Burke what a tough son-of-a-gun J.D. Collins was, or some of the things from how Darris Nichols used to play.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever find another [Kevin] Pittsnogle, because he was so unique in his talent. We’ve got a guy on the top of our zone right now, a couple guys that play very much like Tyrone Sally and Da’Sean Butler. So I think there’s a lot of similarities.”
The popular perception is that there are many stark differences in the style of basketball preached by Beilein and that of his successor at West Virginia, Bob Huggins.
It’s certainly true that Huggins’ squads play a more aggressive brand of man-to-man defense than Beilein’s ever did in Morgantown. The Mountaineers under Huggins have traditionally been strong rebounders, something that was perhaps the single-biggest Achilles’ heel for Beilein’s teams at WVU.
But Beilein said he simply hasn’t played against Huggins’ teams or watched them enough to know just how sharp the contrast of styles is. Instead, he noted there is one important similarity between the two successful head coaches.
“I think we both get our young men we get to coach to reach their potential and really maximize their talent,” Beilein said. “I think when you’re the coach at Walsh and Akron [as Huggins was], or when you’re the coach at Le Moyne and Canisius [as Beilein was], you have to do that, or you’re not going to win.
“As a result, we took that same philosophy when we had opportunities at Cincinnati and West Virginia, or at West Virginia and Michigan. We put application to them. That’s where I think we’re similar. How we do that may be different. I don’t know, because I’ve never seen Bobby’s teams practice. But I hope we both would agree that we get the most out of our teams.”
Perhaps the moment the two coaches’ careers came together the closest was in 2010, when Huggins’ third West Virginia team -- with a roster that included several key players who had been recruited by Beilein -- won the Big East championship and advanced to the Final Four before falling to eventual national champion Duke.
“I was very happy for West Virginia, for those young men on that team, for the program, the university and the state of West Virginia,” Beilein said of his feelings when that run occurred. “We had so many friends and so many people who were so good to me and my family during that time [at WVU], and I was very happy for them.
“I know the passion there is for that basketball team in that state. They made the Beilein family very happy during our five years. There you are, coaching your son, and he’s out there playing -- a walk-on at one time -- and they’re embracing your whole family. You can’t help but be happy for them. We also had Michigan State in that same Final Four, so being in Indianapolis, that was an interesting time for me to be sitting watching those teams play. But I lived through it, and everybody is in a good place right now.”
As for why he left Morgantown in the first place, Beilein brushed aside the notion that it was a move predicated on the chance to recruit more highly-regarded players than might have been attracted to WVU.
“You have to make those decisions,” Beilein said. “I love rebuilding programs. I hoped we could do one more, and the University of Michigan ended up being that choice. When people say, ‘Is that a better recruiting class?’ I never will say those things, because the people who rank those things don’t know what a lot of us coaches know.
“You take some of those teams we had at West Virginia, some of the teams we had at Richmond, the teams we have at Michigan, and even at Canisius, those young men were really good players. Really good players. I’ll let the other people determine if it’s better recruiting or not. I’m very fortunate to have coached at both places.”